James Attlee invites us to savour the long nights of winter – their rare darkness and the too-easily-forgotten light of the moon.
For those of us who live in northern latitudes, one of the first signals of the changing of the season makes itself noticed at the end of August. Before we have reconciled ourselves to letting go of the summer, which may well give the impression of only just having arrived, the evenings begin to grow shorter. As September advances, even as we enjoy what may be some of the warmest weather of the year, darkness encroaches further, a forewarning of the long nights of winter waiting just offstage. What could there possibly be to celebrate in this shortening of daylight? Our hearts militate against rising for work in darkness, only to be greeted by darkness again as we leave to make our way home. After all, we feel like saying, we are human beings, not moles! We deserve a little more daylight than this.
Two things. Firstly, there is a light we can look to when the sun is absent. For generations beyond count our ancestors relied on illumination provided by the moon to bring in the harvest, woo lovers, plant crops and find their way home. With the spread of artificial lighting at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the continuing urbanisation of the planet, many of us have ceased to notice the progress of the moon through its monthly cycle and even fewer get to experience the pleasure of spending time in its ethereal, shape-shifting light. Moonlight in the city is a rare commodity, but the moon rising above the urban landscape is still a spectacular sight. A quick reference to an online guide to the lunar cycle can let us know when the moon will be at its fullest. A pair of binoculars, or better a cheap telescope, can intensify such a lunar encounter into something otherworldly. For moon-watchers, crisp, clear winter nights when the moon rises early are a special pleasure.
Secondly, while we are bewailing the onset of the dark nights of winter, we forget that most of us never experience true darkness at all. If we live in a town or city, walking outside at night presents no difficulties in navigation, as the streets are lit up with the ubiquitous orange glow of sodium lighting that in most of the country is still kept burning throughout the night when no one is around, at a surely senseless cost and impact on the environment. I live in an inner city area in a terraced house with a small garden, backing onto allotments and a nature reserve. The moon rises over the allotments and the shadow of the house shields the garden from the glare of streetlights. Sitting in my garden as dusk falls I am able to observe the way the colours of flowers change, reds turning darker until they are almost purple, leaves changing from green to grey and the full moon reflected in miniature in each raindrop suspended on a branch. That is, I could see these things… In recent times a local school has installed huge, elevated arc lights on their sports field that shine right across the allotments into the back of my house. Considering this is a small facility, their power is staggering. Until half-past ten or eleven o’clock every night they now irradiate my garden, the gardens of my neighbours and the neighbouring nature reserve with bright, white light. Moonlight is banished – yet the local community is served, and the school doubtless makes money from renting out their pitch. Does it matter that a few gardens are changed from places of tranquility into spotlit stages, or a city wildlife reserve is floodlit, disrupting the habitat of the creatures that take sanctuary there? I think it does. It is exactly this kind of careless light pollution that has eroded our quality of life just as unregulated noise does, but strangely it often goes unchallenged.
My book Nocturne is, partly at least, a quest to get beyond the reach of such intrusions. Among other places, it took me to Japan for the Tsukimi autumn full moon festival; to Naples; and to Arizona, where I visited people who had built a ‘moonlight collector’ in the desert. However, some of my best night walks were done in Britain, beyond the reach of the upward orange glow cast by urban sprawl. The full moon in February finds me at Kielder Water in the Northumberland National Park, the site of an observatory, which is reputed to be the darkest place in England. I arrive at the pub where I will be staying as darkness falls. They are used to refugees from our over-lit cities, and are unsurprised when I tell them on the phone that I may want to go in and out in the middle of the night to look at the sky. During the night it starts snowing and I wake to a blizzard; not the best weather for moon watching. I wonder aloud at breakfast whether I ought to try and drive back to Newcastle straight away, before I am snowed in. “Oh no”, a cheerful waitress tells me, “this is just a blip”. She’s right; by nightfall the snow has stopped and I drive down to the edge of the lake and park by the water. As anyone who lives in the countryside knows, beyond the reach of streetlights it is rarely completely dark. Our eyes are capable of detecting light a billionth the strength of sunlight, if we give them a chance. I am just entering the fringes of the forest when another car pulls into the car park and stops right next to my hire car. A figure emerges with a powerful torch and begins to inspect it. It is slightly disquieting, in this isolated place. I call out a greeting and he swings the beam into my eyes. “We were wondering what anyone would be wanting, coming down here at this time of night”, he says, as I walk towards him. He shines the torch at the side of his van, letting me see that he is a security man with Northumbria Water, who manage the park around the reservoir. I explain that I am here for the moonlight, or in the absence of moonlight, just the chance to go for a walk in the dark. “I see”, he says. I can hear the polite bafflement in his voice. “Don’t worry” I say, with sudden inspiration, “I haven’t come to top myself”. “Oh, I’m glad about that”, he says, clearly reassured. “We get too many of them.” Really? “Oh yes, ever so many”. I congratulate him on his vigilance, spotting and following my car at this time of night. “Oh, no one can move out here without us knowing”, he says. “Watch your step”.
Somewhere behind the mist the moon is glowing; the east-facing trunk of each fir tree is painted white from the blizzard and the snow on the ground reflects its veiled light. I follow the path with ease. As my eyes adjust, I find myself in a magical landscape. The water of the lake is tarnished silver, blending with the sky; I feel as though I am walking through a black and white photograph. In the dimness my other senses, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years for scenarios like this and rarely put to use, seem heightened. I notice the wind in the tops of the tress, water lapping on the shore, the powerful scent that pine forests have of decaying needles, fungi and ferns.
Mankind’s conquest of the night, the banishment of its inconvenience by the installation of millions of miniature electric suns, is, of course, a triumph of modernisation, allowing us to keep producing and consuming around the clock. An unforeseen consequence of these changes to our world is that darkness is now a luxury, like silence, to be sought out and enjoyed. So as the nights grow darker, I for one will not be in mourning, merely hoping for clear skies. The full moon in October, which this year falls on the 12th of the month, is colloquially known as the Hunter’s Moon and is often one of the most beautiful of the year.
Photographs by Nick Seaton